The first sighting of Ngon Ngon is a grey, sleek exterior. High chairs adorn the front of the restaurant and the back room shares a similar interior design, with concrete grey chairs and black tables. I’m a little skeptical; the best bowls of pho I’ve had were always in narrow alleys in neighborhoods my mother most definitely would not want me in. In those restaurants, we would huddle over a small table, slurping up the thin, transparent rice noodles, before following suit with the aromatic broth. Here, at Ngon Ngon, the cleanliness of the restaurant is almost a red flag.
And it’s not entirely helpful that only two kinds of sauces stand on each table, a bottle of sriracha and another of hoisin sauce. No chili, no basil, no unidentifiable sauce that normally made pho, pho were to be found. But, maybe, I’m too quick to judge.
We order Ngon Ngon’s special, described as a “classic 16–hr broth with August certified brisket, eye round, bone marrow, meatballs & rice noodles,” and some summer shrimp rolls. The two rolls come first and they are fat, with bean sprouts, vermicelli, shrimp, and avocado stuffed in rice paper. It’s served with a thick, dense peanut sauce with shreds of peanut sprinkled on top. Overall, the roll is good—not close–my–eyes good, but good. The insides of the roll burst when I take a bite, the flavors rushing into my mouth. Had the sauce been less viscous, it would have offset all the dry ingredients better, making it a perfect bite.
Then, the bowls of pho come and they are beautiful. The surface of the clear broth is dotted with green onions, pieces of brisket, and bone marrow. It comes with a side of bean sprouts, basil (so, admittedly, I had been too quick to judge), jalapeño, and lime, accoutrements to add at our own discretion.
But, unfortunately, the aesthetics belie what’s underneath. The rice noodles underneath are lumpy, as if they’ve been dumped into the bowl carelessly. While I am definitely no expert with chopsticks, the lumps make the noodles difficult to separate and eat. They’re also a little overcooked; each attempt to fork the noodles out results in broken strands. When I finally get my hold on them, I’m disappointed at the generic broth, especially considering it’s supposedly been made over a period of 16 hours.
However, what makes the dish is the tenderness of the meat—whether that be the brisket, the meatballs, or the marrow. The marrow, in particular, is juicy and easy to bite into—definitely a frontrunner in the best marrows I’ve tasted. It falls off the bone, leaving a nice aftertaste. The meatballs, too, are tender, embodied with the perfect mix of salt and a tinge of sweetness. And while there were probably too many pieces of meat in the bowl for a good meat to noodle to broth ratio, the flavor of the meat made up for it.
Despite my (otherwise) harsh criticism of Ngon Ngon, it is one of the few places in Philly to get your fix of pho. If anything, the meat is at least worth a visit.
TL;DR: Come for the meat, not for the noodles.
Location: 615 S 3rd St.
Sun–Thurs: 11 a.m.–9 p.m.
Fri–Sat: 11 a.m.–10 p.m.